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Saturday, April 17, 1999

A confectioner for all seasons

Staff writer

Japanese tea and wagashi (Japanese-style confections) are inseparable in the tea ceremony. Wagashi, served before the tea itself, are said to draw out the essence of the tea.

Two different kinds of wagashi are served in the course of the tea ceremony: namagashi and higashi. Namagashi are Japanese cakes using bean paste like the familiar sakuramochi, manju and yokan; higashi are dry confections such as okoshi, rakugan and senbei.

In the days of the great tea master Sen no Rikyu, it is said, namagashi as we know them did not exist; fruits, nuts, herbs and konbu (kelp) were served instead. Somewhat later, wagashi were handmade by tea masters in the kitchen area of the teahouse. Tea masters took pains over the kind of adzuki beans to use in the cakes, selecting choice varieties from producing areas like Bitchu (western part of present-day Okayama Prefecture) and Tanba (part of present-day Kyoto Prefecture).

Nowadays wagashi shops have taken over the making of wagashi, and the tea masters buy them from the shops. Kyoto, the old home of the tea ceremony, is famous for its wagashi, generically called kyogashi. A lot of Tokyo's wagashi shops work in the kyogashi style, but some have developed their own tradition.

Sasama, owned by Yoshihiko Sasama, is one of them. The little, simple and elegant confectionery, located near Surugadaishita intersection in Kanda, has only the one shop in Tokyo and no other branches. Sasama opened in the early years of the Showa Era, and specializes in namagashi for the tea ceremony, although they sell higashi as well.

Sasama offers a range of six different namagashi at 270 yen each. The selection changes each month, a special feature of the shop, with a poetic seasonal name given to each variety. The six April namagashi include "Hana-ikada (Flower Raft)" and "Haru-kasumi (Spring Mist)." In addition, the shop has sakuramochi and waka-kusa dango (sweet herb-flavored dumplings) regularly available; they also offer selected higashi and their original monaka, which are all displayed on the shelf at the front of the shop.

Five confectioners work from early morning to late afternoon in a studio in Komagome to fill the shelves with beautiful confectioneries. Yoshiharu Kikuchi, the chief confectioner for Sasama, has devoted himself to making wagashi at the shop for over 30 years.

Originally from Hokkaido, the affable gentleman says that making wagashi was the only choice he considered when he thought of a future career. He worked for four years at a wagashi shop in Hokkaido before coming to Tokyo at the age of 21 for advanced training.

"My master back in Hokkaido recommended me to Sasama and I came here just as a trainee, but ended up staying for more than 30 years," he says with a smile.

The crucial element in the making of wagashi is the anko (adzuki bean jam), Kikuchi says.

"The shape doesn't matter so much; each shop has its own unique shapes. But with anko, the taste of the wagashi changes dramatically."

The type of adzuki bean used makes a big difference. Sasama uses Miyabi (meaning "graceful") and Dainagon varieties, grown in Hokkaido, to make their anko.

"They have the best aroma," Kikuchi, the Hokkaido native, says proudly.

"In Sasama," he continues, revealing a fine point, "we don't do shibukiri." This process of straining the boiled adzuki and draining the water off, in order to take away the shibumi (roughness) in taste, is done in most other wagashi shops.

"That makes our anko different from any other shop," Kikuchi says. "The taste has koku (good body). People tend to think that without doing shibukiri, the shibumi remains, but it's not true."

Kikuchi says he puts his heart into making wagashi each day.

"When I'm busy and not as careful as I should be, the outcome turns out to be a little different from usual," he says. "When that happens, I always try to remember the joy it brought to me when I first started making wagashi. I just imagine satisfied customers buying them."

Sasama is located at 1-23 Kanda-Jinbocho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, (03) 3294-0978.

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